Music March 2001

The Tradition of the Oldie

The NPR 100 shows for better or worse what Americans think is their classical music
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Fans of the recent movie High Fidelity know that an obsession with top-song lists is a symptom of male narcissistic personality disorder. The anti-hero (played by John Cusack), a used-record dealer, tries to make sense of his serial disasters with women by ranking and re-ranking popular songs in top-five lists suited to every emotional crisis. The appearance late in 1999 of National Public Radio's "100 most important American musical works of the 20th century" may be a sign that public radio, too, suffers from neediness, and not just during pledge drives. Even if I disagree with the list about half the time, though (and what use is a list if you can't argue with it?), it is reassuring evidence that despite the saturation of our environment with sound fillers, people still care passionately about music.

The question, of course, is what music and which people. If lists are a guy thing, as High Fidelity would have it, then so are Web surveys, which usually attract a male, upper-middle-class, lower-middle-aged response. An unspecified group of "NPR staff, critics and scholars" created a ballot of 300 works which they posted on the NPR Web site for ten days, attracting 14,000 votes. Perhaps to lend authority to the final list (available at npr.org), NPR also invited about twenty musicians, including Wynton Marsalis and Michael Feinstein, to vote, even though their impact on the totals would be statistically insignificant. Each of the top 100 works became the subject of a five-to-fifteen-minute segment presented on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered over twelve months.

Any list invites skepticism, especially one whose pretentious claims would be more appropriate coming from the Wizard of Oz than from Susan Stamberg or Noah Adams. "Here's our definition of 'most important,'" the introduction to the final list on the Web site says.

By virtue of its achievement, beauty, or excellence, the work is an important milestone of American music in the 20th century. It significantly changed the musical landscape, opened new horizons, or in itself had a major effect on American culture and civilization.

Good grief! Unlike Rolling Stone's list of top 100 pop songs, the NPR 100 seems contrived, the result of a government-mediated list merger rather than a coherent viewpoint. NPR did not publish the names of its "staff, critics and scholars" (again unlike Rolling Stone, which names the people who compile its list) or the actual tallies. So much for the usual meaning of "public."

From the archives:

"The Many Faces of Ives" (January 1997)
This year's Charles Ives is another illustration of how protean our most American composer remains. By David Schiff

No doubt the meetings at which the ballot was determined were rancorous; people at NPR seemed touchy on the subject when I called to ask about it. The carefully orchestrated diversity of the ballot and its knowing combination of popular favorites and cult esoterica has a certain academic whiff—it could be required listening for American Music 101. The ballot wasted nominations on obscurities like Peter Mennin's Moby Dick and Spike Jones's "Der Fuehrer's Face" while omitting long-respected classical works such as Edgard Varèse's Ionisation and Charles Ives's Symphony no. 4, popular musicals like Bye Bye Birdie and The Sound of Music, and popular songs like "Mrs. Robinson" and—how soon they forget—Michael Jackson's "Thriller."

Whatever the shortcomings of the process, the result is a fascinating mirror of elite and popular musical taste today. By my estimate, sixteen of the top 100 are popular songs from 1900-1949, fifteen are popular songs from 1950-1959, and twenty-five are popular songs or albums from 1960-1979. Just three are popular recordings from 1980-2000 (the MTV generation does not listen to NPR), and one of these is Graceland, which was made by Paul Simon, an artist associated with the sixties as much as with the eighties. Two are religious songs; nine are the scores for stage or film musicals, mostly from the mid-century "golden age"; sixteen are jazz recordings. Six are film scores or "other." Eight are classical works—if you count Ferde Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite, a symphonic pops-concert staple, as classical, and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, a work composed in Paris in 1930, albeit by a future U.S. citizen, as American.

To a cynic, the overwhelming preponderance of songs—as opposed to extended compositions—on the list might appear to reflect the shortened national attention span more than any musical values. Equating the song genre with American music does, however, represent a growing convergence of popular and critical opinions. Writers on American music have always recognized the existence of highbrow and lowbrow, art and pop, "cultivated" and "vernacular" traditions. Until recently most histories of American music, while recognizing the role of popular song, have emphasized the accomplishments of art composers like Ives and Aaron Copland or elevated jazz to the status of "America's classical music" or musical comedy to "American opera." In the past decade film scores have begun to attract similar scholarly attention. Although NPR's ballot amply represented these recently exalted genres, the final list, less conditioned by academic fashion, has a distinctive—and, I would say, more honest—profile. The voters rejected the more musicologically correct candidates and overwhelmingly favored a category of music hitherto scorned by scholars: the oldie.

Thirty years ago expert taste and even some popular opinion would have bowed to the shock of the new, assuming that experiment and provocation were signs of artistic accomplishment. Oldies tell us about the way we were, not about the shape of things to come; they satisfy a need for a usable past. Most American cities have a couple of oldies radio stations. Numbingly repeated ads on late-night TV urge us to buy anthologies of the greatest hits from the fifties to the eighties. It is easy to dismiss oldies as the ephemera of the Me Generation. But their transient nature does not negate the importance of a serious aesthetic principle—call it the tradition of the oldie. Let's list the top five components of the oldie aesthetic:

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